MEMPHIS – When it comes to competitive balance in the NBA, the Grizzlies are in strong company.
In fact, when the season was suspended March 11 because of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Southwest Division essentially stood alone with each of its five teams still positioned for a shot at the playoffs.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver reportedly informed players and teams there could be a decision on how to proceed with the rest of the 2019-2020 season within the next few weeks. From top to bottom, no division in the league has as much riding on that ultimate call as the Southwest.
With fewer than 20 games remaining on the regular-season schedule when play was stopped, the Grizzlies occupy the eighth and final postseason spot in the Western Conference standings. The Mavericks are seventh and the Rockets are sixth in the West. The two other Southwest Division squads – the Pelicans and Spurs – are within four games of the Grizzlies in the chase to secure the last spot.
This collective push to the NBA postseason is hardly new in these parts. Since 2010, the Southwest is the league’s only division in which all five teams made the playoffs in the same season (2014-15). And in 2011, it also saw the Grizzlies, Spurs, Rockets, Mavericks and Pelicans each post winning records.
So what annually makes this division competitive on the court and compelling off it? Start with the star power and personalities of its players and the unique markets these teams call home. To that end, I’ll periodically hook up with insiders repping the five Southwest Division squads to discuss what makes our teams, players and markets stand out in the league as we await the return to NBA action.
Our panel includes TV broadcaster Mark Followill (Dallas), radio broadcaster/PA announcer Matt Thomas (Houston), writer Jim Eichenhofer (New Orleans) and writer Michael C. Wright (NBA.com, covering San Antonio for this reoccurring feature).
This week’s topics: Best players to interview and biggest social media superstars
Which players are go-to guys for insight, information and perhaps even entertainment value?
For the Grizzlies, there are several candidates for this one. But I give the edge to third-year swingman Dillon Brooks. He’s honest. He’s fearless. He answers questions in detail and he doesn’t shy away from tough topics. On top of everything else, Brooks has a great story.
His journey these last three years has carried him from Pac-12 player of the year to largely overlooked in the draft to starting and playing 82 games as a NBA rookie to being sidelined most of his second season with injuries to bouncing back this season and earning a lucrative, three-year contract extension.
The Canada native approaches media opportunities with the same swagger and confidence he plays with on the court. One example that stands out is how he was first to step up and defend his locker room when things grew dicey amid the Andre Iguodala trade ordeal. Another example is how Brooks was first on the team to clearly state the playoffs were the goal, and that the Grizzlies welcomed the target on their backs in the fight for one of the final playoff seeds.
I would say our best interview is Maxi Kleber. His answers to questions are usually thoughtful and detailed and not full of standard clichés. Much like his hometown buddy Dirk Nowitzki he isn’t afraid to use some self-deprecating humor from time to time. I guess it’s a Wurzburg thing! We had him mic’ed up during a game this season and the viewer feedback was tremendously positive because viewers saw what a supportive teammate he is and how well he sees and thinks the game, which was demonstrated in how he communicated with teammates on the floor.
I think Kristaps Porzingis is a fine interview as well. He gives honest and introspective answers about his performances, including after a loss. Dorian Finney-Smith is an underrated player and underrated interview. His answers to questions show he is a funny and pleasant guy and his responses can be detailed when necessary but when a short, simple answer is all that is required that’s what he gives.
It’s nice to be able to say that all the Rockets’ players do a nice job on interviews. Frankly, the biggest obstacle is just trying to get them. It is rare that I get a chance to talk to James Harden or Russell Westbrook because every time the Rockets are victorious, the TNT/ESPN sideline reporters tend to grab them first.
Some of my other favorites are PJ Tucker, Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon. Tuck leaves it all on the court. Moments after a hard-fought win, PJ will come over to the broadcast position dripping of sweat and ready to answer my questions while simultaneously trying to get an extra gasp of air. He is truly a 48-minute player. Austin is very open and honest and is always a fun visit after beating his dad and the Clippers. Eric meanwhile is down home and a go-to guy, especially after a big night at the 3-point arc.
For a roster often accurately described by top New Orleans basketball executive David Griffin as “quiet” overall, there are still several New Orleans players who frequently provide introspective sound bites and commentary. JJ Redick has an advantage on some of his teammates in this category, not only because he hosts his own podcast, but because the 35-year-old made his NBA debut while several other Pelicans were in grade school.
Redick has vast experience, has been in the playoffs 13 times and knows a range of details and information about many topics, both basketball and otherwise. Meanwhile, No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson immediately impressed media members – both in New Orleans and nationally – for his thoughtful responses. He has a maturity beyond his 19 years and a humble demeanor that translates extremely well. Two underrated Pelicans interviewees are Italian forward Nicolo Melli – who is hilarious, as people are increasingly realizing during this hiatus – and two-way contract forward Zylan Cheatham, a dynamic personality but unfamiliar to most fans since he spent most of ’19-20 in the G League.
I’ve got three. Patty Mills is the longest-tenured player on San Antonio’s roster, and he definitely understands the leadership responsibility that comes with that. So, when you ask him a deep question, he’ll pause for a minute just to collect his thoughts so he can give you as insightful an answer as possible. I’d say DeMar DeRozan is the Spurs’ second-best interview. There’s a vulnerability that DeMar isn’t afraid to express that I find admirable.
I respect the way he sort of searches himself internally to give you a genuine, from-the-heart answer to a question. I’ve asked him questions in the past that have led him to ponder questions he has had of himself internally. Shoot, I need to follow up on some of those.
Manu Ginobili isn’t on the roster anymore, but he’s probably the all-time greatest Spurs interview. I’ve never seen a player or person in any walk of life that has Manu’s ability to articulate himself the way he does. I honestly believe his fluency in three languages sort of heightens his ability to articulate thoughts.
Who are your team’s best and most active users of social media?
Considering the Grizzlies boast one of the youngest rosters in the league, there’s no shortage of social media savvy players to go to on this one. But the easy choice here is franchise catalyst Ja Morant, who hasn’t found a platform yet that he can’t dominate with insight, creative silliness and, when necessary, a clap back or two.
Morant goes at Twitter like he attacks opposing defenders in the paint. He can be relentless sometimes, almost uncomfortably so. But he also uses social media for great deeds beyond the basketball court. He’s used the platform to reach impoverished youth, kids battling illnesses and families in need. He’s also rewarded dozens with shoes, game tickets and special access to him beyond team obligations. The home video he shot of his own player introduction when the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders first started was classic. The Twitter exchange with Steph Curry early in the season underscored Ja’s take-no-prisoners competitive edge. And his TikTok skits always keep everything loose.
Luka Doncic is the most active player during the season on social media. He posts a lot of pictures on Instagram, especially after wins. He tweets often about Real Madrid basketball or soccer, soccer in general, retweets the Mavs account, and when he missed a few games with injury and didn’t travel, he tweeted a lot during the games.
Like a lot of people, his social media habits during the pandemic have been a little different than they were during the season. I would say Jalen Brunson has been tweeting more during the pandemic, especially commenting during episodes of The Last Dance. Boban Marjanovic goes for quality over quantity on Instagram. He does not post as often but his pics and comments are usually quite funny.
The Rocket players’ preferred mode of social media is definitely Instagram. It would be easy to fill your account with highlights. However, what you’ll see with most of the players, as Ric Flair would say, is how they “style and profile.” James and Russ are big into what they wear into and out of the arena.
PJ also brings his clothing game to the venue. But Tucker’s game is the shoes. I can’t remember a road trip where Tuck hasn’t purchased a new pair of shoes. There is no telling how many pairs he has purchased over the years. It’s also great to see many of the players with posts of team success, their charitable work in the community, and places they go when they are away from the game.
Josh Hart is hands-down the team’s most avid participant on social media, relying on an array of platforms, including Twitch (where you can watch him compete in video games), Twitter and Instagram. Last summer, Hart’s social-media embrace of his new NBA city actually made him popular among Crescent City fans before he’d even played a single minute for the Pelicans.
Hart, rookie Jaxson Hayes and Melli are New Orleans’ most consistent users of Instagram. During the current break, Lonzo Ball has used the platform to provide a fun look at his family, highlighting the time he spends with his brothers and dog. Jrue Holiday, also often emphasizes family when he posts on social media – Pelicans fans love the adorable videos of Jrue having fun with his young daughter JT, whether they’re inside the Smoothie King Center or on a bike ride through their neighborhood.
Mills is probably San Antonio’s best user of social media because in many ways he mirrors coach Pop’s fascination with world affairs. Obviously, as an Australian, Mills is proud of his Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lineage. So, many times on social media, Mills is shining a light on issues people are dealing with in Australia that many of us would otherwise know nothing about. Mills has taken up learning to play the guitar as a hobby. So, you’ll see plenty of tweets with Mills playing the latest song he learned.
Mills is also a part of the Spurs’ legendary Coffee Gang, a group of players (Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw are original members) that gets together on off days during road trips for various activities. They once visited and took a tour of Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2018, using their love of coffee as the elixir that bonds them. Mills blesses Spurs fans with plenty of glimpses of those trips on various social media platforms.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.